Jim Sheridan's rueful, semi-autobiographical film In America follows a poor, young Irish family as they struggle to make a home in New York City. Once they find a pigeon-infested tenement apartment in Hell's Kitchen and miraculously fix it up, creating a bohemian, patterned, glowing space, the real work begins. Johnny, an unemployed actor, his wife Sarah and their two young daughters are mourning the recent loss of the youngest member of their family, Frankie. The boy's ghost crosses the Atlantic with them, drives over the Canadian border and haunts them all, especially Johnny, who has lost the capacity to feel. Everyone seems to blame themselves for the boy's death, and only the youngest daughter, Ariel, seems capable of happiness, before they befriend Mateo, a reclusive neighbor and artist, dying of AIDS.

As in his previous work, My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father, Sheridan brings an emotional immediacy to his material rare in contemporary films. Allowing the eldest daughter, Christy (Sarah Bolger), to tell the story through voice-over, and occasionally through her beloved camcorder, the director balances the somber subject matter with the innocence and magic of a child's eye-view. Early on, during their first heat wave, the family escapes their sweltering apartment for an air-conditioned movie theatre and sees E.T., and the image of the bicycle crossing the full moon reverberates throughout the film. Sheridan shares Spielberg's sensitivity to the fears of childhood, which are often the fears of adulthood, and he shares a yearning for transcendence. Love, here, eventually conquers all. But it's not without a fight. Though In America skirts sentimentality, it largely avoids it, because the emotion is earned through finely observed characters.

Johnny, portrayed by Paddy Considine (24 Hour Party People), is not your typical down-and-out dad, familiar in Hollywood movies. For one thing, he maintains his sex appeal, his manliness, a quality that most American films only allow the financially successful or glamorous family man. Typically, the beleaguered breadwinner loses his self-respect and that of his wife and kids, after which he gets roaring drunk and abusive. He's a loser, and the stink of failure isolates him. While Johnny does get roaring drunk (once), he never completely loses it, and although he doubts himself, his goal is to come alive again, rather than to get rich and famous. Considine, with his hangdog handsomeness and volatile energy, keeps Johnny surprising. You never quite know how he'll react or what he's thinking, but the play of emotions across the actor's face registers every nuance. He's perfectly matched by Samantha Morton as Sarah, who proved she could act without the benefit of words in Sweet and Lowdown. I wished, however, that she had grown her hair some, because with her crewcut and intense expressions, she looks just like the pre-cog she played so hauntingly in Minority Report.

Sheridan wrote the screenplay with his two grown daughters, who experienced some of the same events depicted in the movie when they lived with their parents in Hell's Kitchen. Perhaps that is why the children's lines ring so true. Certainly, the performances by sisters Sarah and Emma Bolger (as Christy and Ariel, respectively) are remarkable. Late in the film, the reticent elder daughter, Christy (age 11), blurts out that she's been holding the family on her shoulders, and in a sense Sarah's performance holds the film together. She narrates the story, and it is through her prematurely wise little face we sense we'll find the truth. Emma, age seven, in her acting debut, is astonishingly natural and completely adorable. The sisters' scenes with Djimon Hounsou (Amistad) as Mateo, the initially fearsome "screaming man," but eventual teddy bear, are especially touching. Mateo borders on saintly, but Hounsou invests him with a deep spirituality and even a sense of humor. Mateo becomes the fairy godfather in this harsh but hopeful urban fairy tale, the catalyst for bringing the family together and ultimately saving it.

In America, with its ravishing cinematography by Declan Quinn (Leaving Las Vegas, Monsoon Wedding) and its moments of magical realism, takes Sheridan far from the documentary look of his best-known films. The score, with songs by The Lovin' Spoonful, Culture Club and The Byrds, is as playful as the visuals, and works to keep the angst at bay. No one has ever told an immigrant story quite like this.

--Wendy R. Weinstein